Thursday, 4 April 2013

Ice Houses and Iron Age Forts

In the A-Z of Ashdown we have reached I for the Iron Age hill fort and, most appropriately for the weather, Ice Houses. I have blogged about the Ashdown House ice house before - here - and I hope it doesn’t make anyone feel too chilly!

The Iron Age hill fort of Alfred’s Castle lies to the north west of Ashdown House. It is small as hill forts go with a single rampart bank and ditch but it has a large enclosure attached that in aerial photographs shows as crop marks. It is possible that a second ditch was re-used as part of the medieval park pale in 1204. The current bank was originally revetted with sarsen walls but when Ashdown House was built in 1662 these were robbed out to lay the foundations for the house. The antiquarian John Aubrey who passed Ashdown at the time recorded this act of historical vandalism!

Two excavations by Oxford University recorded Bronze Age origins for the site, dating from the 6th century BC. This is an interesting tie-in with the line of four Bronze Age barrows on the horizon, thought to mark a tribal boundary and with the Bronze Age artefacts found on Weathercock Hill. Evidence of an Iron Age roundhouse was found and also a Romano-British building dating from the 2nd to the 4th century AD.  The Roman building was a “villa farmhouse” of fairly high status with six rooms, several of which had an “opus signium” floor of stone and tile. The building was substantially built of stone and had painted walls but no hypocaust or mosaic floors. It is one in a series of early villas in the area.

In 1855 William 2nd Earl of Craven donated a copper Romano-British brooch and two bracelets found there to the British Museum.

Alfred’s Castle was originally known as Ashbury Camp and was given the name Alfred’s Castle in the 18th century when antiquarians wanted to tie it in with King Alfred’s Battle of Ashdown of AD 871. I’ve blogged about the battle in other posts (links here and here) and Ashdown has at least as good a claim to be the site as any, with Alfred’s muster at the hill fort. The Second Earl of Craven also donated a number of other finds from the estate that show Anglo Saxon origins including a knife, shears, spear heads, and a sword. There was also a Viking axe…

In modern times the author James Long used the archaeological dig at Alfred’s Castle as inspiration for his book Silence and Shadows.

There is currently no interpretation board at Alfred’s Castle as we are waiting for the final report from the Oxford University dig so that we can incorporate the details. However it is a site that is well worth seeing as part of the historical landscape.


Beth Elliott said...

Thank you for this very interesting post. I am always happy to discover more about King Alfred. It's wonderful what the land can reveal, when we really search.

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Beth. It's wonderful to have an Ashdown connection to King Alfred. I love the way that the landscape can tell us so much about history as well as fire a writer's imagination.

Minerva Black the shoppe keeping cat said...

I am very interested in ice houses, my Grandmother used to tell me about them. Very interesting post. Now that Spring appears to have come I must come and visit again. Minerva x

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you, Minerva. Ice houses were fascinating inventions, I think. Very clever. I am puzzled though as to where the ice came from at Ashdown since there is very little water around up here on the Downs.

We will look forward to seeing you soon!